There are two and only two ways of acquiring wealth: the economic means (voluntary production and exchange) and the political means (confiscation by coercion). On the free market only the economic means can be used, and consequently everyone earns only what other individuals in society are willing to pay for his services. As long as this continues, there is no separate process called “distribution”; there are only production and exchange of goods. Let government subsidies enter the scene, however, and the situation changes. Now the political means to wealth becomes available. On the free market, wealth is only a resultant of the voluntary choices of all individuals and the extent to which men serve each other. But the possibility of government subsidy permits a change: it opens the way to an allocation of wealth in accordance with the ability of a person or group to gain control of the State apparatus.
Government subsidy creates a separate distribution process (not “redistribution,” as some would be tempted to say). For the first time, earnings are severed from production and exchange and become separately determined. To the extent that this distribution occurs, therefore, the allocation of earnings is distorted away from efficient service to consumers. Therefore, we may say that all cases of subsidy coercively penalize the efficient for the benefit of the inefficient.
Subsidies consequently prolong the life of inefficient firms at the expense of efficient ones, distort the productive system, and hamper the mobility of factors from less to more value-productive locations. They injure the market greatly and prevent the full satisfaction of consumer wants. Suppose, for example, an entrepreneur is sustaining losses in some industry, or the owner of a factor is earning a very low sum there. On the market, the factor owner would shift to a more value-productive industry, where both the owner of the factor and the consumers would be better served. If the government subsidizes him where he is, however, the life of inefficient firms is prolonged, and factors are encouraged not to enter their most value-productive uses. The greater the extent of government subsidy in the economy, therefore, the more the market is prevented from working, and the more inefficient will the market be in catering to consumer wants. Hence, the greater the government subsidy, the lower will be the standard of living of everyone, of all the consumers.
On the free market, as we have seen, there is a harmony of interests, for everyone demonstrably gains in utility from market exchange. Where government intervenes, on the other hand, caste conflict is thereby created, for one man benefits at the expense of another.
- Murray Rothbard, Power & Market
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